Trump used his remarks to thank and regale a room full of Cabinet members, Republican lawmakers, U.S. business leaders, and others, including Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
A night after speaking for 80 minutes at a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Trump seemed nearly as upbeat and buoyant as he regaled his audience with personalized shout-outs and inside jokes, drawing laughs and generally presiding as ringmaster in a show that Gordon Chang, a hawkish China analyst who appears frequently on Fox News, likened to “an Academy Awards acceptance speech.”
“Trump’s comments went on at great length; I think the Chinese were a little bit pained if you looked at their expressions,” Chang said.
The ceremony came at a crucial time as U.S. business leaders have warned of economic pressures amid escalating rounds of punishing tariffs on both sides. As he ramps up his reelection effort, Trump has been eager to score a win in his trade war with Beijing, while also hoping to maintain a tough stance toward the rising Asian power.
But if Trump was anxious to pronounce an early-round victory, he was in no hurry to bring Liu or Ambassador Cui Tiankai to the lectern, leaving them and two other Chinese officials to stand stiffly to his right as he spread praise around the room.
He touted the work of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser, calling him “our brilliant Jared”; credited his chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow with calming market jitters on a day when it had lost $1 trillion in equity; and repeated an oft-told story about how Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor-turned-U.S. ambassador to China, accurately predicted 28 years ago that a Chinese exchange student name Xi Jinping would someday become president.
After ticking through several Cabinet members, Trump paused: “So we have tremendous numbers of people here and I’m saying, ‘Do I introduce them?’ But I think I should because this is a big celebration.”
Introduce them he did — Dobbs, who he noted called him a better president than Washington, Lincoln or Reagan; Kissinger, who Trump quoted as saying, “How did the president ever pull this off?”; Blackstone Group chief executive Stephen Schwarzman and billionaire hedge fund manager Nelson Peltz.
“How’s General Electric doing?” Trump asked Peltz, whose firm took an equity position in the struggling company. Trump added confidently: “He’ll straighten it out.”
Trump moved on to Congress members. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is “the toughest guy,” the president said, boasting that he made former FBI director James B. Comey “choke during a hearing [in the Russian interference probe] . . . Comey choked like a dog.”
Trump lamented that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was not running for reelection. He noted, in introducing Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), that he himself had won that state “by a lot” in 2016. He made news when he told then-Rep. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) that he planned to visit the state on July 4 to watch a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore.
By this point, Trump had been speaking for 25 minutes and several Republican House members, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), had left the event to return to Capitol Hill, where the House was holding a historic vote to send two articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate.
“Some of the congressmen may have a vote — it’s on the impeachment hoax, so if you want, you can go out and vote,” Trump said at one point. “It’s not going to matter because it’s gone very well. But I’d rather have you voting than sitting here listening to me introduce you, okay?”
As Trump continued, some armchair analysts wondered on social media whether he was purposely trying to embarrass the Chinese with a passive-aggressive power play. Others wondered whether Trump was trying to distract from the House floor debate.
But some China experts said it was the delegation from Beijing that may have had the upper hand despite the president’s seemingly disrespectful performance.
“What the Chinese have come to strongly believe was validated by the 40-plus minute Trump show, which is that it is all about Trump and it’s all about his political equities,” said Daniel Russel, a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute who served as a high-ranking Asia policy official in the Obama administration.
“From the Chinese perspective, the time had come when Trump calculated it was politically expedient to cut his losses and close the deal,” Russel said. “Their strategy of talk-talk, fight-fight, was the right one, as they were justified in not having made fundamental concessions and that his need to finally close presented the opening for this.”
By the 36-minute mark, even Trump-friendly Fox News pulled out of live coverage of the East Room ceremony. Trump “has been going around the room thanking everyone who has something to do with money and the economy,” said a host, informing viewers that they could click over to Fox Business Network to keep watching.
The network then cut to the live House floor debate over Trump’s impeachment.
Back in the East Room, Trump was still going. Oil executive Harold Hamm “takes a straw, he goes like this, and oil pops up,” Trump said, mimicking poking it in the ground.
Trump finally invited Liu to the microphone after allowing two Cabinet officials to speak. The event had gone on for 54 minutes. Liu, through an interpreter, read a letter from Xi to Trump, then Cui, the ambassador, spoke for a few minutes.
In all, the Chinese delegation spoke for 15 minutes.
Then Trump and Liu signed the documents, and the event concluded after 74 minutes — an ordeal the Chinese might have felt was worth every minute.
For the Chinese, “it’s all about time,” Russel said. “Even a mediocre deal is a good deal to them as a device to buy time — not only to see if Trump is reelected, but much more importantly to prepare themselves, to strengthen their defense for the worst things they know are yet to come — more decoupling measures, more attacks on their tech.
“They are increasing their self-reliance, diversifying their suppliers and all the while they are fending off new tariffs,” he continued. “This was a micro-version of their bigger play — to run out the clock and to use Trump’s politics against him.”